Car by Carl Steuer of Blackhorse Motors, Los Angeles
This past December, during a fancy all-duded-up Governors Awards ceremony at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Los Angeles, Hal Needham, the legendary stuntman and director of Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, stepped up to the podium to claim his honorary Oscar. The daredevil, square-jawed veteran of hair-raising stunts in more than 300 feature films—in which he broke 56 bones, twice broke his back, fractured a collarbone, punctured a lung and lost several teeth—Needham, 81, has earned the slight hitch in his giddyup that now dents his famed swagger. Besides, he probably never expected the film industry to salute him for his life’s work—particularly if he flashed back to May 19, 1977, the Thursday night his debut movie turned America’s grandest, most popular movie showplace, New York City’s 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall, into an outsize art deco ghost town.
On that white-knuckle night, not even the allure of 100 leggy Rockettes high-kicking in slinky military precision managed to draw flies to the world premiere of Needham’s directing debut, Smokey and the Bandit. For the uninitiated or those who may need a reminder, the twangy barnstormer is 96 minutes of pedal-to-the-metal, Southern-fried, grinning-ear-to-ear car chases and badassery featuring a runaway bride, a scene-stealing hound and the even bigger scene-stealing Jackie Gleason as a short-fused, potty-mouthed sheriff—not to mention the plot: To win an $80,000 bet, ultracool outlaw Burt Reynolds, driving a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, and ace trucker Jerry Reed, behind the wheel of a souped-up semi, have to haul 400 cases of contraband Coors 1,800 miles in under 28 hours.
But back in 1977, Manhattan wasn’t cottoning to Needham’s raucous, randy good-old-boy salute to hot cars, 18-wheelers, open throttles and two-lane blacktops. The release of Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t trumpeted in high-profile Burt Reynolds interviews, there was no red-carpet opening, and Needham hadn’t been flown out to publicize the flick. Not surprisingly, the New York film critics were short on Northern hospitality. The New York Times deemed the movie fit only for “audiences capable of slavering all over a Pontiac Trans Am, 18-wheel tractor-trailer rigs and dismembered police cruisers and motorcycles.” Other reviewers found it “thoroughly unimaginative” and an “unfortunate waste of talent.” Nobody involved in the making of Smokey was naive enough to think they had created another Lawrence of Arabia, but what really got the suits sweating at Universal Pictures, the studio newly cash-rich from nervy, small-risk movies like American Graffiti and Jaws, was the opening-night view from the rear of the theater: aisles of posh velvet seats, mostly empty.
At Radio City Music Hall, where hit movies might be held over for months, Smokey and the Bandit got the boot after one short week.
From the vantage point of more than 30 years, Needham—who had been Hollywood’s highest-paid stuntman, working in signature films directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown) and Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and as an action double for John Wayne, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds—says, “I’d warned Universal about opening the movie at the Music Hall: ‘We won’t make enough money to pay the damn Rockettes.’” The studio should have listened. Needham not only knew his audience, he also never forgot where he came from. The charismatic Memphis-born sharecropper’s son, ex-logger, Korean War paratrooper, billboard cigarette model and sometime actor had cemented his hairy-chested gonzo rep by leaping off a runaway stagecoach and jumping from horse to horse for Little Big Man, driving a car off a dock and landing on a moving ferry 80 feet away for White Lightning and scoring a world record by jumping a boat 138 feet over a swamp for Gator.
Famed also for his four-letter vocabulary and for having lived with his buddy Burt Reynolds for well over a decade, Needham was summoned by the Universal brass to a post–Music Hall postmortem. Recalls Needham, “They started saying stuff like ‘Should we cut the movie? Is it too this, too that?’ It got drastic. It got heated. I said, ‘Wait a minute, folks. I didn’t make Smokey for big-city audiences. I made it for the South, the Midwest and Northwest. Those are my people.’”
As a sop to Needham’s people, the same people who composed Reynolds’s fan base, Universal booked the flick in a handful of Southern theaters and drive-ins. Needham, Reynolds, country music favorite Reed, Reynolds’s friend and protégé Alfie Wise and other celebrities rode tractor-trailers through downtown Atlanta for a down-home-style second “premiere.” Says Reynolds, “If you want to know if something’s going to be a hit, ask a kid. There were lines of kids around the block. It looked like a riot was going on.” Universal played up the movie’s huge success in Southern states and reopened it in New York, the rest of the East and the Midwest. Says Needham, “Everywhere it played, it went bananas. All the bad reviews I got, the ones saying Burt walked through the movie and Jackie Gleason was a buffoon? Didn’t matter. People told each other how funny the movie was, and word of mouth spread. I finally had to think, Maybe it is a movie for everybody.”
By late June the flick had hauled in an impressive $12 million. By year’s end, only Star Wars topped it as 1977’s biggest moneymaker. Today, Smokey and the Bandit is estimated to have grossed in the neighborhood of $365 million worldwide.
In hindsight, the signposts for the movie’s big breakthrough look as big and broad as a barn door. Four months before the film stormed theaters, newly sworn-in president Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn had begun to bring a touch of the New South to the Beltway. The CB-radio craze had millions zooming the highways, swapping tips on ways to outfox cops enforcing the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit imposed in 1974. C.W. McCall’s 1975 ditty “Convoy”—about a cross-country trucker rebellion—held the number one position on the country charts for six weeks. Truckers were celebrated as modern-day cowboys. Country artists had plucked and twanged their way into the mainstream thanks to million-selling hits from Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, George Jones and Willie Nelson, among others. Movies came down with a case of country fever too, with such low-budget, high-octane material as Macon County Line, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase and Eat My Dust flexing blue-collar muscle at the box office. But Smokey and the Bandit put an openhearted, irreverent, multiracial face on the emerging South. As actor-director Billy Bob Thornton put it, “To the rest of the country, Smokey and the Bandit was just a movie. Here in Arkansas, it was a documentary.”
Fittingly, the movie’s origins were of the “just plain folks” variety. Needham, at the age of 45 in 1976, was becoming tired after two decades of stunting. On location he was fascinated that a maid kept raiding his hotel minibar for bottles of Coors. “It shocked me that it was illegal at the time to sell Coors east of the Mississippi River,” he remembers. “When I heard that, my mind went crazy. Everything in Smokey came from the simple idea of cases of Coors everyone east of the Mississippi wanted to get their hands on. I liked that it wasn’t about killing or hurting people, but it was action and about doing something illegal. I thought, What if someone were driving a truck full of beer and there were lots of fast cars and a lot of cops chasing him? My idea was to make it funny for anybody who has ever driven fast, gotten a ticket and driven away saying, ‘Goddamn cops.’”
Needham figured his best shot at getting to direct the movie himself was to pitch it as a quick and dirty Roger Corman–style project costing $1 million or less. He tapped his wild-man friend Jerry Reed to star as an ace driver and ladies’ man nicknamed the Bandit. Reed, then 39, a ferocious guitar player, session musician and songwriter for Elvis Presley and Dean Martin, was also known for warbling toe-tapping hits such as “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” Invited to appear in movies in 1975 by his friend Burt Reynolds, Reed expanded his audience via Reynolds vehicles, playing a musician in 1975’s W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings and a vicious crime boss in 1976’s Gator.